Range & Battery Life
Contracts & Fees
Additional Packages & Accessories
Help & Support
Best Medical Alert Systems
The Best In-Home Medical Alert Systems of 2017
With the longest pendant range in our tests, a flexible contract that you can cancel anytime and excellent premium packages, Medical Guardian is our pick for the best in-home landline medical alert system overall. Medical Guardian offers excellent premium packages, including two mobile alert options, an in-home cellular system that features the popular MobileHelp CBS01-02 system, and above-average fall detection pendants. It's one of the few medical alert services with a package for families of seniors, allowing you to track and monitor your loved one. And at the 2018 CES, Medical Guardian announced a new medical alert smartwatch, which is expected to be available soon.
Our value pick is Bay Alarm Medical. The industry average cost for in-home landline systems is $30 per month, but this service's landline system costs $19.95 per month, which represents significant savings over other systems. Even the mobile medical alert package costs less than most in-home systems at $29.95. In addition, the MyTrex MXD system it uses has one of the highest quality speakerphones and a specified pendant range of 1,300 feet.
The medical alert system with the best speakerphone is MobileHelp. This company manufactures one of the most popular medical alert systems – the MobileHelp CBS01-02. It's such a popular system that you'll find many other services using it. It's loud but doesn't distort. The microphone is sensitive enough to clearly pick up voices from rooms away, and it's one of the few systems that we reviewed with a display that shows the time, temperature and cellular signal strength. Similar to Medical Guardian, MobileHelp also announced that they'll be releasing a medical alert smartphone this year at the 2018 CES.
Medical Alert Systems: What We Tested, What We Found
In-home medical alert systems consist of a base unit and a pendant. When you need help, you press a button on the pendant, which you wear all the time, and it sends a wireless signal to the base unit to call for help. Once the monitoring center answers the call, you communicate your emergency (or lack thereof) with the operator through sensitive microphones in the base unit and loud speakers.
This process absolutely hinges on this wireless signal being reliable. If the wireless signal doesn’t reach the base unit, you cannot call for help. As such, it's the reason why it's one of most important features that we tested.
Every medical alert system has a listed range in the specifications. This range is typically going to be the line-of-sight range – the distance that the pendant's wireless signal can reach the base unit without objects between them. These listed ranges vary greatly, from 1,300 feet with Medical Guardian to 300 feet with ADT. To put this in perspective, the difference between these ranges is like the difference between the Statue of liberty and the Empire State Building.
To test these listed ranges, we went to a large field and marked out 100 foot increments. We then pressed the pendant at each 100-foot marker until the base unit no longer responded to the pendant. In many cases, the medical alert systems reached distances far beyond the listed range. For example, Medical Guardian's Classic Guardian reached 2,000 feet, which is 700 feet longer than its specified range.
However, while this range is impressive, it doesn't reflect practical usage. Seniors aren't taking their medical alert systems to the park (unless they have a mobile alert system). So, while a 2,000-foot range is impressive, there are usually walls, beds and refrigerators between you and the base unit, and obstacles can interfere with the connection.
As such, we also tested the range within a building. We found that all the systems we tested have pendants that are 100-percent reliable within 100 feet. This is good news because it means that most systems have reliable coverage for most homes and apartments. Still, we found that the pendants with long outdoor ranges tended to have longer indoor ranges as well. For example, the Classic Guardian only reached 450 when tested inside, but this was also the longest indoor range.
Every medical alert system plugs into an outlet, so you don't typically have to worry about the battery life. That said, each device has a rechargeable backup battery. This is so you can still call for help when the power goes out.
Testing each unit’s battery life was simple. We fully charged the batteries and then unplugged the medical alert systems. We used the medical alert pendants to alert the base units of an emergency every hour until their batteries failed and they could no longer receive alerts.
Rescue Alert’s battery lasted 90 hours, which is nearly three times as long as most devices. Medical Guardian had the second longest battery life with 32 hours. In most cases, you only need the battery to last a few hours, as the average power outage in the U.S. lasts for about an hour and a half. That said, if you live in an area with a high risk of natural disasters, which can cause prolonged power outages, then a long battery life can be critical.
Contract & Fees
Most services use the exact same medical alert devices, which are developed and manufactured by a wholesaler, and most services don't own and operate their monitoring centers. This is a fact of the medical alert industry – most of these companies simply sell and market the devices and have no input on the emergency monitoring service. As such, it's possible, if not common, for companies to offer the same exact systems while using the same monitoring center. In these cases, the only differentiating factor is the price and the terms and conditions.
Cost matters when choosing a medical alert system because most seniors are on a fixed income. As such, we compared the costs of the various packages and add-on features like fall detection pendants. We looked at the average savings on packages when you pay annually, biannually or quarterly. In addition, we considered potential fines and fees listed in the terms and conditions, such as fines for too many false alerts.
Cancellation and refund policies were a critical part of our evaluation. Aging in place is unpredictable. You never know when you’ll have to move in with family or into a retirement facility or nursing home, so you need to have the flexibility to cancel your service without penalty.
In general, most companies allow you to cancel your service at any time without a cancellation fee. However, we omitted some medical alert services from our lineup because the contract had stipulations we felt were too aggressive. For example, Life Alert is not included in our list because the service requires a minimum three-year contract commitment and features additional fees that other services include in the monthly cost. For example, you have to pay a technician to install the device in your home. With Life Alert, you only have two options for cancelling a contract: either the loved one using the system passes away or he or she moves permanently to a long-term care facility. In both cases, a technician must confirm it before the contract can end.
What Else is Important in Selecting a Medical Alert System?
At the most basic level, a medical alert system consists of three parts – a base unit, an emergency pendant or bracelet, and the emergency monitoring service. However, there are additional features that help delineate the best medical alert services from the rest of the pack.
Multi-Person Medical Monitoring
Some services offer multi-person medical monitoring. Instead of paying for a separate system, you pay a smaller additional fee to add another person to the account. This is ideal for elderly couples and usually only costs a few dollars extra per month.
You speak to the emergency operator through the base unit, which has sensitive microphones and a loud speaker. However, it's possible that you could be too far from the base unit to effectively communicate. A voice extender is like a mini base unit you place elsewhere in your home, and adding one allows you to speak with the operator when you are otherwise too far from the main base for them to hear you. (It's important to note that if the operator cannot hear you, they will assume that you need help and send an ambulance to your home. This is great for such emergencies but can be a costly mistake if you accidentally hit the help button but were too far away from the base unit to know it.)
With a check-in service, the medical alert service calls your home periodically to check on you and to ensure your medical alert system works properly. Most companies charge additional fees for this service, but the best ones we reviewed include check-in service at no additional cost to you.
In addition to being away from your base station, there are times when you may not be wearing your device. For example, you may like to remove it when you go to sleep or when you take a shower.
A wall-mounted device is a separate alert button that you station in locations where you are likely to remove your wrist or neck pendant. You can strategically place these buttons to ensure you are never far away from help and that you don’t need to wear the device at inconvenient times.
Comfort & Durability of Your Medical Alert Device
Your medical alert device only works if you wear it. As such, comfort is an important feature to consider. Most medical alert systems come with a pendant you can wear around your neck. Others come with a medical alert bracelet that looks and feels like a watch. Some services provide both options. Whatever your preferences may be, choose one that you’ll actually wear.
Fall Detection Add-On
Fall detection devices are designed to call for help when you fall, since many tumbles result in loss of consciousness or an inability to press the emergency button on the pendant. These pendants cost between $5 and $15 per month in addition to your medical alert system.
In our tests, we found the fall detection pendants to be wildly inconsistent. The technology is only a few years old, and a lot of bugs still need to be fixed. That said, we found that mobile alert systems had better fall detection than fall detection pendants.
Evaluating the Monitoring Center
Most medical alert systems don't own or operate the emergency monitoring center that your medical alert system calls when you need help. Don't be fooled by vague marketing that makes it seem like the monitoring center is under the purview of the medical alert system. In the vast majority of cases, the monitoring center is an independent monitoring center contracted with the service. These monitoring centers typically deal mostly with home security and business security accounts, and this can cause some issues with prioritization.
Seconds matter in an emergency. As such, a monitoring center's call response time is important. In our tests, we found the average call response time to be around 70 seconds. However, many of the services we reviewed were significantly faster, averaging close to 40 seconds. Every medical alert system that we've reviewed encourages you to test your system regularly. As such, we recommend timing how long it takes for the operator to answer the call. If it regularly takes longer than a minute, you may want to consider a different service.
All the systems we evaluated offer 24/7 monitoring service, which means there are always emergency response operators available to answer your call for help. However, not all of them have translation services should you or your family member use a primary language other than English. The best call centers can communicate in 150 or more languages. Our top-rated system, for example, has a call center with representatives who can speak over 200 languages. It’s important to notify the service if you have multilingual needs. This way, it can be better prepared for situations when a translator may be needed.